Featured image by Thyagi Ruwanpathirana

Multiculturalism in Sri Lanka is often understood as the co-existence of distinct ethnic communities, whose individual histories have unfolded independently during different eras, in different parts of the country.[1] Conventional historical narratives usually emphasize the pre-colonial origins of cultures, equating antiquity with legitimacy, and it is commonly assumed that the cultural artifacts and genetic makeup of ethnic groups are the same now as they were then.

Stories told about Sri Lankan performing arts have mostly followed the same trend: the origins of “Sinhalese music and dance” are typically attributed to the historical kingdoms of Kotte and Kandy, while the origins of “Tamil music and dance” are placed in ancient South India.[2] These historical interpretations have been reinforced in the last sixty years through school syllabi, and in the past couple of years through short information videos produced for internet consumption.

Such overly simplified views have been questioned by scholars; unfortunately, revisionist history-writing rarely travels beyond an intellectual readership. But where academic publications cannot venture, narrative fiction can. Unfettered by the ethical demands of non-fiction and the limitations of available information, fictional storytelling (both literary and cinematic) can recreate the ethos of past eras by appealing to our empathy for individual human stories; and in doing so challenge our assumptions about the ways things might have been.

For example, Dharmasena Pathiraja’s 2016 film Sakkarang serves to dispel the notion that Kandyan dance was unaffected by European colonialism. It does so by depicting the life of a hereditary dancer as he negotiates the societal transition from feudalism to capitalist modernity in the early 1800s – an often-overlooked period that was critical to the formation of present-day Kandyan dance and music.[3] Unfortunately, Sakkarang features acrobatic dance moves and polyphonic drumming textures that weren’t actually used before the 1900s, making the overall impact of the film less convincing than it might otherwise have been.

In contrast, the musical details in Sumathy Sivamohan’s 2017 film Puththu saha Piyavaru (Sons and Fathers) are more plausible, having been inspired by the stories of twentieth-century musicians such as M. K. Rocksamy and Mohammed Ghouse, as well as by the personal experiences of present-day musicians such as Anthony Surendra. The result is an ode to the social diversity that was once a fact of life in the Sri Lankan arts.

Puththu saha Piyavaru relates the stories of a Tamil musician, his Sinhalese wife, and her son from a previous relationship. The non-linear narrative depicts the struggles of the two men, who work in the Sinhala-language music industry in the 1960-1980s, against the social backdrop of intensifying ethnic intolerance and violence.

Music that is usually considered purely “Sinhalese” has in fact been “multicultural” from at least the 1700s. The famed Kavikaara Maduwa (poet’s assembly) of the Kandyan court included composers who would today be considered Tamil and Muslim.[4] The folk drama form of Nadagam has historical connections with Kooththu, which is found in South India and Eastern Sri Lanka. The newer dramatic genre Nurthi, which has employed local nationalist themes since the late 1800s, was modelled after the North Indian Parsi theatre; Nurti playwrights either borrowed Hindustani melodies or worked with North Indian composers who brought with them their own musical styles. The music of Sinhala cinema has been no different; in fact, several composers and singers in Sinhala films in the 1940-1960s were from South India, and the melodies of many Sinhala film songs were direct copies of Karnatik-music-influenced Tamil film songs from South India.[5] Interestingly, the new Sinhala lyrics set to these Tamil film songs often promoted strong sentiments of Sinhalese nationalism. Puththu saha Piyavaru uses one such song as a point of reference, namely Pita Deepa Desha Jayagaththaa– performed by the famous Malay singer Lakshmi Bai – which criticises Sinhalese who appropriate foreign lifestyles.

The inconsistencies of cultural nationalist thought are evident in the subsequent evolution of Sinhala film song, which (as seen in the movie) went on to reject Indian musical techniques in favour of Western influences. Patriotic cultural production throughout this era was truly multi-ethnic in origin, with many key figures being native speakers of Tamil (in real life, they were Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims such as M K Rocksamy and Mohideen Baig). In retrospect, the sad irony is that what at the time was conceived as Sri Lankan patriotism carried with it the subtext of Sinhalese ethno-nationalism; this point is subtly emphasised in the film through the juxtaposition of film-industry politics with the broader inter-communal tensions brewing in the country.

To its credit, Sivamohan’s script of Puththu saha Piyavaru is not a straightforward fable that moralises against an ethnic majority that one day irrationally turned against minority co-workers. Rather, the theme of identity politics is presented with all its nuances, contradictions, and negotiations: for example, social actors of all ethnicities are implicated in the modes of cultural production which fed into the majoritarian insecurity that led to the violence of ’83. The film also showcases the influential role of women behind the scenes of the public sphere, even in industries where men are credited with the final products. Puththu saha Piyavaru even creatively pokes at the question of ethnicity by drawing attention to the identity of the younger musician – who is Sinhalese by “biological race” but ethnically Tamil by association with his step-father. The documentary-style inserts featuring real-life personalities serve to remind us that the fiction of the story is very much rooted in reality.

The non-linear narrative arc of the film is effective, especially for contemporary audiences, however (unsurprising for a low-budget film) some of the editing is a bit jumpy: this takes the viewer out of the moment from time to time. Puththu saha Piyavaru deserves the award it won at the recent World Indian Film Festival, and I hope that the film’s funding will allow for its release in a home-viewing format.

Editor’s Note: Sons and Fathers was recently screened during this year’s Cinema of Tomorrow Film Festival.

Also read, “In Conversation With Tharanga Goonetilleke” and “Awards, Recognitions and Sri Lankan Creative Writing in English“.

[1]                Ethnomusicologist Jim Sykes calls this the “cartography of culture zones” <https://www.isa-sociology.org/uploads/files/EBul-Sykes-July2012.pdf>.

[2]                 Notable exceptions that account for cross-cultural influences include studies of the music genres of Baila and Sarala Gee (Sinhala “light music”), by authors such as Sunil Ariyaratne < http://www.godage.com/book-details/music/204-baila-kapirigngna-vimarshanayak.html>, Anne Sheeran <http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/H/bo20850002.html>, and Garrett Field <http://www.luminosoa.org/site/books/10.1525/luminos.27/>.

[3]                 For more nuanced information about the formation of Kandyan dance during the British colonial period, Sudesh Mantillake’s work is a useful resource <https://youtu.be/Cf9hzr9T40c>.

[4]                Source: Tony Donaldson’s “The Kavikara Maduva: Ritual Singers in the Dalada Maligava (Temple of the Tooth), Kandy”.

[5]           More information about the South Indian influence on Sinhala film music appears in Premaratne Samaranayake’s obscure article, “Siṃhala Gītayē Dakshina Bhāratīya Balapǟm“, in the SLBC’s Haňda magazine (3: 2013); the topic is also discussed in Jim Sykes’ forthcoming book “The Musical Gift: Sonic Generosity in Post-war Sri Lanka”.